Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Breaking the Waves Review - Like a Boys Don't Cry Prequel

Great poster. This too.
[Eds. Note - posted a rough draft first by mistake (again), fixed it by 9:35, same day. Sorry!] Lars Von Trier is a weird figure in film. He co-founded an artistic movement, Dogme, a long time ago. He's directed movies that span horror, drama, and scifi. He's also been ostracized for stupid Nazi comments, and repeatedly accused of misogyny.

In the end, a good reviewer deals with the movie by itself, then also deals with the movie in context. Any lit fan-boy can say, "I love X (e.g., Dickens), and any X story is great." Any mindless movie fan can say, "this movie had X cool scene, so it's great." And any fan-boy reviewer can say, "because this story is based on X, it's totally great."

I aim a lot higher than that. I was looking forward to reviewing a more serious movie, for a change.

I didn't know what to expect when I walked into Breaking the Waves. The footage of small-town life - even a Scottish town - was comforting and nicely-done. The entire build and setup of this Danish tale was a great piece of work. But I saw it in the same theater as I saw Boys Don't Cry, and got the same sobbing date result; different girlfriend, same sobbing.

The problem, then, isn't that I left the theater with a crying woman on a Friday night. The problem is that the story's thrust was self-destructive garbage. Sometimes, you don't like the story you get because of what it has to say - other times, you don't like it because where the story ends goes feels... Try it this way: at least Faces of Death is a documentary.

Frankly, I can't tell on which side I am anymore. In the end, I not only had a hysterically-sobbing girlfriend next to me, I had watched a movie that I neither enjoyed nor appreciated much, and (worst of all) it was harsh without having any real point.

Breaking the Waves is supposedly about a new marriage between a local townswoman and a oil rig worker. We see their joy, and their glorious-but-simple wedding day. But what happens once tragedy strikes?

Well, the story spends a certain amount of time dealing with the reality of having a crippled spouse. It takes this springboard and transforms into a story about a woman seeking her martyrdom.

Here's the whole tale: the wife missed her oil rigger hubby and prayed to God that he'd return home asap - which happens when he's crippled. The distraught husband tells his wife to find a new man for herself; he does this so his condition won't ruin her life. For Von Trier, though, this means the woman stumbles into an abusive sex ring and gets herself beaten severely; then she goes back there again, to die. Next, the husband has a miraculous recovery. The end.

If I usually avoid these kind of spoilers, it's for a reason - here, I don't see a connect between where the movie starts and where it goes. A good woman's degradation isn't shown to express a real point - like simple people may take the wrong message from your words, or the dangers of extreme selflessness and/or looking for signs everywhere. Or suicide by proxy. For a little time, the movie may seem to be about cosmic irony and wishes that are granted cruelly.

Though I was ready to respond to any or all of these ideas, the turn to the abuse and destruction of the bride instead makes it seem that making viewers watch it is Von Trier's goal. It's even worse, because the poor woman is, bluntly, "a little simple." I can accept unhappy story developments, but not that she would go back to the Boat o Snuff-Sex, like sex couldn't be found elsewhere.

No one's that simple, unless a writer/director needs them to be. If she thought by urging her to take a lover, the husband meant "get sex, even if you get beaten til you're bloody," then this should be a story about a man who married an undiagnosed mentally disabled girl in Scotland. I won't even talk about the extra emotional abuse and awkwardness added by the townspeople. For Lars, there's always humiliation, and it's always public.

None of my words are meant to slight the actors. Emily Watson is... in-#$@#ing-credible as the new bride. There are a lot of moments that play beautifully, too. I suspect that the direct of has some heavy Christian masochism thing going on; some shots are so overtly trying to evoke Christianity, it makes me think of The Seventh Seal-era Bergman. Watson's work, and that of the others involved, is excellent. It's just the story that fails this story.

I really loved the way this movie was shot, so it was sad to see where it went. I can't imagine why Lars wanted to include an unexplained "domain of evil" where women walk in... to get sexed and punched? If this were the movie's concern, it would resolve that by the end. The "no-safeword rough sex barge" (yes, really I wrote those words) would move on to another place, or would be blown up, raided by police, turned into a Starbucks...

But no matter what, the cruelty isn't balanced by another story element. If the movie were concerned with striking a devil's bargain, or people who lose faith in themselves but try to do the right thing, then it would have shown more of the husband's post-recovery life. Hell, if the movie were about faith, it would have more than one fanciful image at the end and one impossible recovery.

The best moments of the movie are probably attributable to Lars' Dogme style. You feel like you're watching, if not at, a small-town wedding. The ins-and-outs of what they do and feel is incredibly authentic and entertaining. When you jam in the other element - woman gets beaten instead of finding love for her husband, then goes back again like a $#$#ing lemming - you ruin this picture. It should be art-house cinema.

When you look at Breaking the Waves, from almost any angle, it seems like Lars Von Trier wanted to make a movie about a new bride walking into danger and harm - ironically done from selflessness - in order to see the bride get tortured like Jesus in his last days. It fits Easter perfectly, but if you make a movie like that, and I can't find other redeeming factors, I just say "screw you, I didn't go to see a snuff film."

The final shot - where the husband has returned to working on the sea, and we get a vision of his wife on a cloud, ringing bells as if to shake heaven itself - even this does not feel earned by the material that's come before. I won't just accept it because Von Trier is a major film director; I can't.

That's pretty much how I feel about Breaking the Waves. I don't have to be annoyed because this date movie resulted in one distraught female; I can despise it because it has no message other than "bad things happen," and I can't see why I needed this story to make that point. I can't see why I needed to watch all of this. I suspect that a lot of women have masochistic expectations from life, and all this picture does is affirm those messed-up, ancient ideas. You may be a great director, but go to hell, Lars.

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